Here is June’s installment of “Ask Shelby” from Chester County’s own Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Shelby Riley
In a few weeks, my oldest will be heading off to college. I’m so proud of her and happy that we have made it through the high school years. Our relationship is okay but certainly not perfect, and I’m worried about how I can continue to grow our relationship while she is at college, without becoming “that mom” who can’t let go. How do I let go…without losing my relationship with her?
Signed, Still Mom, but Moving On
Dear Still Mom,
First of all, congratulations! Making it through the high school years with a teenager is rarely easy. It is clear from your concern that you love your daughter very much and understand that it is now time for her to begin establishing herself as an independent young adult. I am going to turn this question over to my associate, Rebecca Freking, MSMFT, who works a lot with families around these kind of issues.
Rebecca writes: This is a very hard transition for many parents. Even if your daughter is not traveling far to attend college, it is hard to say goodbye and watch your daughter begin the process of starting the next phase of her life. Let me first give you permission to mourn when your daughter does leave for college. No, you are not losing your daughter or your relationship with her, but your life is changing in big ways. For some moms, mourning means re-focusing their attention onto their own personal hobbies or interests. For other moms, mourning means being able to pore over baby pictures with a glass of wine and not feel guilty about it. Give yourself permission to take care of yourself during this tough transition.
During the rest of the summer, I would suggest focusing on laying a strong foundation for your relationship with your daughter that will withstand the test of distance. Of course, I don’t mean forcing her to hang out with you instead of attending graduation parties. I would recommend that you take the initiative to plan several activities with your daughter, such as going on a bike ride together, getting a mani/pedi, whatever you would both enjoy. It is a myth that teenagers don’t want to have a good relationship and spend time with their parents; they do, but often they need their parents to take the first step. Too many parents wait for a sign from their teenager, all the while their teenager is wondering why their parent never wants to spend time with them. If you’ve already been building this quality time into your relationship with your daughter, fantastic. If not, know that you’ve still got time to strengthen your relationship before she leaves.
As far as the big transition to college, here are a couple pieces of advice to keep in mind:
- Remember how I just said that teenagers need their parents to reach out to them? This is true, but give your daughter space for the first few months of college. It will be hard for her to grow roots in college if she is texting you with updates about every new friend.
- Many people are concerned that social media makes us more disconnected, but social media can be a means of connection when used properly. If you don’t know what an “emoji” is or if you’ve never used Facetime, ask your daughter to teach you before she leaves. These types of media can be great ways to easily keep in touch with your children and see their faces from miles away.
- Understand that your role with your daughter needs to change. When she was in high school, she needed a leader who could establish clear rules and expectations. When she is in college, what she needs is a mentor. This means holding onto your advice unless you are directly asked for it and providing a space for your daughter to share about the changes she is encountering. Unfortunately, no, you won’t have control over her decisions, but you will have influence on your daughter’s decisions through the power of your supportive relationship.
- Talk to your daughter about this transition before move in day. Be upfront: You want to maintain a relationship with her, but you also want to give her the freedom to enjoy her college experience. Talk about your expectations and ask her about her expectations – will you check-in with each other on the phone weekly? Bi-weekly? It is okay if these guidelines end up changing once your daughter is in college, but having the conversation sends the message that she is important to you and that going to college doesn’t mean you don’t want to be a part of her life.
- Of course it is normal to feel anxious when your child leaves for college, but don’t let anxiety become the basis of your contact with her (“Are you okay? Do you miss me, too?”). Make sure the motivation for your phone call or text is a desire to learn about her life and to begin the process of building an adult relationship with her.
- Your daughter is starting the next phase of her life, and so are you. Even if you have other children at home, now is the time to be a little self-focused and think about you. What are some of your own interests and goals that have gotten shoved off the to-do list these past years? Focusing on your own interests and hobbies means you and your daughter will have that much more to talk about and learn from each other.
Your daughter is lucky to have a mother who is devoted to supporting her goals while also maintaining a solid relationship. Best of luck to both of you,
Shelby Riley, LMFT is the owner of Shelby Riley, LMFT and Associates, LLC. She is currently the Past President of the Pennsylvania Association of Marriage and Family Therapy (PAMFT). Remember to check out Shelby’s website www.shelbyrileymft.com for useful information about therapy for individuals, couples, and families.